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Violence in the Workplace

Nobody wants to experience violence in their lives, but violence in the workplace can be a particularly difficult subject to navigate. It is important for all employees and employers to understand that there are different types of workplace violence, and to be able to recognize the signs of it.

What is Workplace Violence?

Workplace violence is defined by OSHA as “any act or threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation, or other threatening disruptive behavior that occurs at the work site.” This covers a wide range of actions that could take place at the workplace that would be qualified as violence. One doesn’t need to be physically struck or harmed to experience workplace violence – it can come in the form of verbal abuse or vocalized threats of violence. If somebody feels that their own well-being is in danger, they have experienced workplace violence.


Workplace violence can be carried out by and received by employees, vendors, employers, customers, clients, and visitors. Anything that happens on the job site constitutes workplace violence. As previously mentioned, this can be something like a verbal threat but can be as serious as homicide.


The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) breaks down workplace violence into 4 different subcategories. They are as follows

  • Type 1: Criminal Intent. This type of violence occurs when an individual with no connection to the company commits an intentional act of violence at the workplace. This could be a random person who attacks an employee at a retail store or a thief who premeditates threatening a cashier with a weapon in order to get money.

  • Type 2: This takes place between a customer or client and someone at the workplace. They may be making a purchase and become angry at some facet of their service and then decide to attack the person who is assisting them.

  • Type 3: Worker-on-worker Violence. This is when one employee who has a working relationship with another employee attacks him or her, whether physically or with a threat.

  • Type 4: Personal Relationship Violence. This involves one employee and one person who has no relation to the business. This could be between an employee and their spouse, and the attack could come from either party. If it happens on the job site, it is still workplace violence.

Statistics on Workplace Violence?

Those who have never experienced workplace violence may be surprised by the workplace violence statistics. In fact, studies show that in 2017, workplace violence accounted for 18,400 injuries and 458 fatalities, and it seems that there is an upward trend in these numbers over the past few years (https://injuryfacts.nsc.org/work/safety-topics/assault/). However, violence can still occur even if no injuries are accounted for.

  • OSHA estimates that around 2 million workers experience workplace violence in some form every year. This could be a physical attack but could also come in the form of violent threats or verbal harassment

A study from 2015 shows staggering numbers involving workplace violence:

  • 51,000 sexual assaults in the workplace

  • 396,000 aggravated assaults

  • 84,000 robberies

  • 1,000 homicides

These numbers probably don’t tell the whole story, as many victims are embarrassed or scared to report the violence that they experience. According to OSHA, it is estimated that 25% of all workplace violence is not reported. This suggests that there are far more instances of workplace violence than what statistics show, and that is highly concerning.


While violence can happen in any workplace, people in certain professions are more likely to experience workplace violence. These include:

  • Taxi drivers, who experience violence at an astounding 60 times the national average. This puts the taxi industry at the top of the list of industries with high workplace violence.

  • Retail Sales – with 330,000 workers attacked yearly, retail is an exceedingly dangerous profession to work in

  • Police Officers – around 234,000 police officers experience workplace violence on a yearly basis

  • Healthcare – of all victims who were traumatized by workplace violence in 2016, 70% of them worked in healthcare and social assistance.


Violence in the workplace doesn’t affect everyone equally. 70% of traumatized victims are female, and 67% were aged 25-54. When it comes to fatal incidents, however, 82% were male and 48% were white.

Signs of Workplace Violence?

While workplace violence often goes unnoticed, there are many signs of it. Being able to recognize these signs early can be extremely helpful for workplace violence prevention in the future. While some victims may try to hide the signs out of fear or embarrassment, you can do your best to notice the signs of a potential aggressor.


Sudden Change of Behavior


If a coworker who used to be friendly quickly becomes hostile or withdrawn, something might be wrong. This could be a worker that used to have a positive outlook and energetic persona but all the sudden becomes negative and unmotivated. They might also lose interest in the things they loved previously. Perhaps they used to talk about sports every day, or go to game nights with fellow employees, but now they remain silent or skip out on scheduled events.


A change of behavior isn’t a surefire sign of a violent employee – it could be brought on by a traumatic life event or something as simple as a change in medication – but when noticed in conjunction with other behaviors, it is something that should be monitored closely.


Confirmed or Suspected Drug and Alcohol Abuse


Drug and alcohol abuse can be a sign of bigger problems and could lead to violent behavior in the future. Excessive use of these substances cause changes in the brain’s chemistry, and even a mild-mannered person can become aggressive and unpredictable after these changes take place. The use of drugs doesn’t necessarily have to take place on the job – even if it is happening after-hours it can have a negative effect on someone’s sober personality.




Workers who are likely to commit violence generally don’t do so out of nowhere. They start small and eventually escalate their aggression until it results in a violent action. This may start with small, negative comments about fellow coworkers or managers. It could be snarky comments made on social media about work. They might play it off as humor or simply venting, but these little events could begin to snowball into something larger. If someone is continually complaining to others about the workplace, it’s possible that their frustration might boil over into an act of violence.


Decline in Work Performance/Absenteeism


If a formerly exceptional worker begins to experience a sharp decline in work or starts taking an excessive amount of unplanned days off, this could signify that something is wrong. Struggling with a difficult project isn’t something to be concerned about, but if someone is having trouble completing their everyday tasks or living up to their standards of performance, it may be time to take action.




A worker who constantly believes that management or other workers are “out to get them” could be a potential aggressor. They might show constant concern that they are being set up or that they are going to lose their job in the near future. While job security is a concern for everyone, it is not healthy to obsess over such a situation and doing so could push someone to commit a violent act.


A paranoid person might also be worried that people are talking about him or her in secret, or that the other coworkers don’t like him or her. If someone shows this type of paranoia about their acceptance at the company, they are more likely to take negative actions against other workers.


Inability to Accept Criticism


Constructive criticism is a healthy part of any working relationship and being unable to take such criticism can be a negative sign. If someone frequently lashes out after receiving any sort of criticism, they may have anger issues that need to be sorted out. Unwillingness to change negative behaviors could lead to more serious actions in the future.


Violating Company Policies


Some workers begin taking their frustrations out by violating company policies on a regular basis. Maybe they take exceptionally long lunch breaks, make inappropriate comments, or don’t follow the company’s dress code. Often, they are trying to draw negative attention to themselves. Doing so might lead to them being reprimanded, which will give them an excuse to act out in a violent way. They will feel as though their punishment is justification for their negative actions.




If an employee is constantly making himself or herself out to be a victim, they may be setting themselves up for violent action. By telling themselves that someone is out to get them or that they have been wronged, they are preemptively creating a justification for aggressive behavior. This is a common tactic and is often used to draw sympathy from coworkers so that the aggressor can get away with negative behavior.

How to Prevent Workplace Violence?

Workplace violence prevention is an uncomfortable and difficult subject, but it's something that must be done to keep members of any organization safe. Recognizing the early warning signs of workplace violence is an important step in preventing it, but there are other actions that can be taken to prevent these negative situations from occurring on the job.


Education and Training


While it is not required by law to train employees about workplace violence, it is a major benefit for employers to do so. Training doesn’t have to be excessive or accusatory – it should take place in a relaxed atmosphere and allow for open discussion and questions. Trainers should focus on the warning signs of workplace violence and let employees know that it is encouraged to report any potential violent situations. Employees should be aware of the different types of workplace violence and should understand that it is important to stop aggressive situations before they get out of hand.


Training doesn’t stop at employees, however. Everyone from interns to executives should have proper training on workplace violence. Managers need to know how to handle situations among their employees and should be trained to encourage detailed reports when something happens. They should be aware that they might be the go-to person if someone on their team experiences workplace violence, and they should know how to react.


Security Systems


As the most common type of workplace violence is perpetrated by non-employees, it is important to have a strong security system installed in any building or site where work is done. This includes locks and surveillance cameras as well as extra lighting at night and identification badges. There could also be an alarm with a code that is only known by employees, and some companies may hire security guards for extra protection.


Background Checks


Employers should be diligent in performing background checks, as someone with a violent history is far more likely to bring that type of behavior into the workplace. Background checks allow employers to check criminal history and speak to previous employers to see if there were any reported incidents of violence.


Open Reporting


Employees should be encouraged to report any violence and anything that might make violence easier. This could be anything from a light being out to a suspicious person constantly hanging around the building. Employees should feel like they can point out any vulnerabilities without being harassed, and they should be confident that their concerns will be heard, and that management will take action to help prevent violence.


Mental Health Programs


Many companies offer confidential mental health programs for their employees, and this can go a long way in preventing workplace violence. Often, these are toll-free numbers that keep the user’s identity anonymous and allow them to speak with someone who can help talk them through their issues. If someone has fallen upon hard times and needs help, the employer can provide it without gaining access to any private information and without needing their own managers to take issues into their own hands that they may not be qualified to act on.


Team Building Exercises


Team building exercises can be a great way to get employees to interact with each other, especially across departments that might not work together on a regular basis. These exercises can be fun ways for people to get to know each other, and this familiarity can go a long way in preventing workplace violence. If someone has been feeling left out or like they’re not part of the team, this can instill new confidence in them and help them to feel better about their place in the company.


No Tolerance Policies


Enacting a no tolerance policy for workplace violence is very important in preventing it. If an employee knows that any sort of violent behavior could cost them their job, they are less likely to commit such acts. It seems like common sense, but some companies don’t have such policies and their employees suffer because of it.


Workplace violence is a serious problem in the USA, and numbers suggest that it is becoming more and more prevalent. This could be because more people are reporting in than ever before, but there are still many who are too afraid or embarrassed to let their employees know. This should never be the case, and employers should encourage their workers to be open and honest with them. They should know the warning signs of workplace violence, as this is key in preventing a violent situation in the future. They should also train their employees to know the signs, and they should enact violence prevention programs to keep their employees safe.


If you are a victim of workplace violence or are concerned that someone in your workplace might become violent, it is important to take action before it goes any further. If you feel threatened in any way or are worried about anyone else’s well-being, give us a call immediately at 800-395-7866.